New Innovation: Gravity Lights!

18 01 2013

Happy 2013! We made it past the end of the Mayan calendar cycle.

One of my biggest passions in development work is low-cost technology. There are so many amazing small ideas out there with BIG impact potential. Here is my latest favourite:

The Gravity Light

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Imagine how many ways this technology can have an impact… evening classes, reduced lung cancers from inhaling kerosene or smoke, an endless supply of energy, reading after a long day, being able to continue to work after it gets dark, finding your way back to your home from the toilet, a couple could give kids a safe space to play outside at night…

They have already beat their original funding goal of $55,000 by ~800%, having raised almost $400,000! They are currently working on the second model.

Keep up the great work Martin Riddiford and Jim Reeves!
– Sarah Topps 2013

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Avaaz?

26 02 2011

Sleepily browsing the world wide web this morning when a mysterious by-line caught my eye:

“You should message me if you can give me some intelligent feedback on… www.Avaaz.org

My curiousity having been sufficiently aroused by the fact that I had never heard of this website, I cautiously typed it into Google to find out what it could be about. What I discovered was exactly the type of website I have been looking for to write a post about for the past few months, ever since the online conversations sparked ongoing protests across North Africa and the Middle East.

Avaaz – which means “voice” in several major language groups around the world, is an online forum where registered users can take actions including signing petitions, funding media campaigns and direct actions, emailing, and lobbying governments, towards a large range of issues. Their strength comes in numbers, and the fact that they focus on the things they agree on. Avaaz seems to garner strength from individualism, and rather than trying to find consensus about the specifics of any one issue, each member decides individually where to focus their efforts and whether they will participate or not in any given campaign or movement.

The result is phenomenal – for example perhaps not everyone shares the same view points on gay marriage or whether being gay is something you choose or something you are born with, but when almost half a million people sign a petition to stop the passing of a bill which would sentence gay Ugandans to death, suddenly you see that there are over-arching human rights concerns which many agree on.

Some of the descriptions of Avaaz.org listed on the site include:

“Avaaz is closing the gap between the world we have and the world we want, one campaign at a time.”

…and…

A transnational community that is more democratic, and could be more effective, than the United Nations.”

— Suddeutsche Zeitung

…and…

Avaaz is a global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere.”

While Avaaz is only a few years old (2007), it has already had a major impact internationally in forums such as climate change, human rights, the international sex trade, emergency response, state corruption, protecting natural resources, and the list goes on… Some of Avaaz’s concrete achievements are listed below:

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  • a drive for a “million-signature Citizen’s Initiative in the EU” for a moratorium and independent testing and regulation of Genetically Modified crops.
  • almost $700,000 raised for an intensive, long-term campaign to fight the “rape trade”–the sexual enslavement of women and girls around the world
  • strong backing for indigenous communities “petitioning Chevron’s new CEO to clean up his company’s toxic legacy” in the Amazon.
  • support for a democratic resolution to the January 2008 election crisis in Kenya — tens of thousands of Avaaz members asked their foreign ministers to refuse to recognize any President until Kofi Annan’s negations could produce an acceptable compromise.
  • worldwide pressure for democratic rights in Pakistan during the November 2007 crisis, and an ad campaign in Pakistan calling for President Musharraf to end the state of emergency.
  • a global call for a WTO ruling to ban subsidies for dangerous corporate overfishing of the world’s oceans, in which Avaaz members sent tens of thousands of messages to their trade ministers.
  • an effort to increase transparency in the UN’s selection of the next High Commissioner for Human Rights that “made international headlines through a blog” and a fake job advertisement in The Economist.
  • a petition, rally, and protest video supporting efforts to oust Paul Wolfowitz from the World Bank after the May 2007 corruption scandal
  • a call for regional governments to increase aid donations to help Mexico cope with flooding in November 2007
  • co-hosting, with Chatham House, David Miliband’s first speech as UK Foreign Secretary — and bringing him questions from Avaaz members around the world.

*****

I plan to join Avaaz and dig a little deeper into their campaigning process over the next few weeks. I’m sure that the mass appeal of being able to have a real impact on international issues will bring Avaaz.org more and more to the centre stage of how the internet can be used to have a real impact on the real world.

– Sarah Topps

(I’d also like to say thanks to Arteri, who originally directed my interest towards this site.)





Space imagery interpretations: for better? or for worse?

1 04 2010

One of my favourite professors, Jon Unruh, has engineered an interesting concept for learning a large amount of material quickly in his graduate level class on the geography of conflict. There are about 10-15 students in the class, and we each read one peer-reviewed article from the suggested list, and then summarize it, critically analyze it and present it to our classmates in ten minutes or less.

Last week’s conference was on applying geography to peacebuilding, and I was lucky enough to be able to review van Wyk’s 2008 overview of the use of space technology to aid human security in Africa.
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Space for peace? The use of space technology to monitor conflict trends and human security in Africa (by van Wyk 2008) – A critical review by Sarah Topps

This article highlights the emerging trend of using space technology and satellite imagery to improve human development in African conflict zones. Jo-Ansie van Wyk describes several ways in which programs such as global positioning systems (GPS), geographic information systems (GIS), Earth observation (EO) and remote sensing can be used by governments and NGOs to track conflict,  illegal activities such as logging, internal displacement, or to identify crimes against humanity.

The article was succinctly written and used satellite images to demonstrate the potential for space science and technology (S&T) in a number of different situations – from identifying human rights abuses in Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina in 2005 to searching for underground water sources for refugees camps in Eastern Chad.

The article notes that satellite technologies can be costly and therefore inaccessible to some, such as African humanitarian organizations, however it does not indicate how expensive this technology is, or how cost-effective it is in saving time and money that would have been otherwise spent on locating the target aid recipients in other ways. Is it too expensive for every humanitarian organization to use it, or simply the ones which will not benefit enough from it? Could there be cooperation between the groups who own the space S&T and the humanitarian groups?

Another drawback which the author notes is the lack of a scientific support base to interpret the images in order for their governments to respond appropriately and adequately, however, depending on the scenario for which the images are being used, some may only require simple and specific training which might be taught easily enough through internet instructions from scientists elsewhere wishing to help with the conflict resolution etc.

Overall an enjoyable paper, which made no pretense about it’s purpose, which was simply to illustrate “[…]that space S&T can be applied to address conflict trends and human security in Africa” (van Wyk, 2008).

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Interestingly, not two days later, my father sent me a link to a cautionary tale about jumping to conclusions while using space imagery. Recently, Alex Tabarrok from the economics blog: Marginal Revolution wrote an article on tried to examine the large-scale effect of Mugabe’s land redistribution policy on Zimbabwean farmland using “before and after” photographs from Google Earth.

Unfortunately, according to Google Earth expert Stefan Geens, there seems to be a slight problem with his interpretations of the “before and after” shots.

“His before-and-after images are derived from the same original raw Landsat image. They are from the same point in time.” – Stefan Geens

I would suggest reading the article itself for more details, and Tabarrok, to his credit, has since updated his post, retracting some of his previous statements, based on what Geens has pointed out.

Satellite technology has certainly proven useful in a number of situations, and may be vital to the success of many future development initiatives, however, in today’s age of freely available technology, results need to be scrutinized before acting on them as conclusive evidence, as van Wyk also noted.

– Sarah Topps

1. van Wyk, Jo-Ansie. 2008. Space for peace? The use of space technology to monitor conflict trends and human security in Africa. Conflict Trends (4):12-17





Geothermal Power: An underrated alternative source of energy

30 03 2010


For today’s post I am very excited to introduce my friend Peter Buchanan as my first guest writer for ReachFWD.

Peter is currently studying Petroleum Engineering at the University of Alberta and he hopes to study geothermal electricity at grad school. He was explaining the concept to me and it sounded so interesting that I asked him to write a brief explanation for my readers on ReachFWD.

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When we think of alternative sources of energy, renewable resources that can reduce our dependency on fossil fuels to meet our energy needs, often the most vivid pictures that come to mind are wind and solar power. Evidently, this is because the sun and the wind are so ubiquitous in our daily lives. We can feel their energy so it is only natural to notice them. This is probably why geothermal power, another renewable source of energy has been largely overlooked until recently.

Geothermal power comes from energy generated by heat in the earth. The material that makes up our planet gets hotter and hotter as is gets closer and closer to the core of our planet. This energy can be seen on the surface in the form of hot springs, geysers and volcanoes. There is an essentially infinite amount of energy beneath our feet, waiting to be utilized.

(Diagram from www.geo-energy.org/basics.aspx)

Geothermal Energy is not new; the first Geothermal Power Station was build in 1911 in Larderello, Italy[1]. Since then, it has become a common source of energy in places like New Zealand, Iceland, The Phillipines and the Geysers in California. Typically it works like this: Two wells are drilled into a geothermal reservoir (rock hot enough to transfer sufficient energy to water). The geothermal reservoir may contain water or steam in network of pores and fractures that make up the rock or it might be dry. Hot water is extracted from the wells and its energy is used to drive a turbine which generates electrical power. The cooled water is then re-injected down the other well where it reheats and continues in the loop.

While there are various types of geothermal plants, the three most prominent types are: Flash steam, Dry steam and Binary Cycle.

Flash steam plants work when high pressure, high temperature water coming up the producer well are directed in to a large vessel. Because of the large pressure difference the water flashes into steam which is used to power the turbine.

Dry steam plants are used when the wells produce only steam. This can be the case in very high temperature reservoirs. The steam from the reservoir directly turns the turbine and is then condensed into water and re-injected into the ground.

Binary Cycle plants use a working fluid (commonly iso-pentane) with a lower boiling temperature than water to turn the turbine[2]. Hot water from the reservoir heats the fluid in a heat exchanger. The fluid then boils to turn the turbine, while the water is re-injected in a closed loop. Binary Cycle plants allow for lower temperature reservoirs to be used.

(Diagram from: http://www.nevadageothermal.com/s/HowGeoWorks.asp)

If geothermal power is so clean, efficient and abundant, why isn’t it being used for all of our electricity needs across the planet, you ask? Until recently, geothermal power was not viable from and economic or technological point of view in most areas of the world. In places like Iceland, New Zealand and the Philippines where hot reservoir rock can be found close to the surface it was used but in many areas of the world the resource would be too deep to drill for economically if even possible.

(Diagram from: http://www.cangea.ca/what-is-geothermal/)

Fortunately, with today’s advancements in technology such as binary cycle plants and enhanced geothermal systems (EGS; where rock is artificially fractures to allow for more permeability in the rocks and more flow/heat transfer) many new geothermal resources may be unlocked in the near future. Geothermal power is not likely to ever completely replace fossil fuels, however combined with other renewable sources of energy it has the potential to contribute to a much larger percentage of the world’s energy consumption.

Pros of Geothermal Power:

  • Clean and renewable with little or no emissions.
  • Reliable. It doesn’t depend on the weather to produce electricity, so it is always on.
  • Many of the engineering concepts are very similar to Oil & Gas, so we have a head start on the learning curve.
  • Can already compete economically in some regions and the list of regions is growing.

Cons of Geothermal Power:

  • Requires a large initial capital investment (like all power plants) which can take time to recover the costs.
  • Not economical in many regions.
  • Reservoirs can be depleted of heat locally, but will regenerate the heat over time.
  • Not enough awareness!

References:

  1. Larderello Worlds First Geothermal Power Station, Renewable Energy UK,  http://www.reuk.co.uk/Larderello-Worlds-First-Geothermal-Power-Station.htm
  2. How Geothermal Works, Nevada Geothermal Power, http://www.nevadageothermal.com/s/HowGeoWorks.asp
  3. What is Geothermal, Canadian Geothermal Energy Association, http://www.cangea.ca/what-is-geothermal/
  4. Basics, Geothermal Energy Association, http://www.geo-energy.org/basics.aspx




How to Make Money and Change the World

1 12 2009

Recently a good friend of mine and his family heard that I had never experienced an American Thanksgiving and were thoughtful enough to invite me down to visit with them for the weekend. Needless to say, the meal was decadent, and both the conversation and the wine were sparkling. [An extended thank you to the Vitek family!]

While I was down in the USA, my friend took me to meet some friends of his for a night out in small-town America. We visited a local bar, ate bagels slathered in cheese and spicy meats and chatted about our various university degrees and jobs. One of his friends, Tsewang, was a young woman from Nepal who I chatted with for an hour or so about international development and social entrepreneurship (two of my favourite topics!) as well as some less cumbersome subjects. At one point near the end of our conversation, I mentioned to her that I was hoping to start a pilot project for solar water disinfection (SODIS) in Angola next year, and she told me that, being from Canada, I ought to look up an organization called Dream Now“.

After returning from the weekend, I had all but forgotten about her wonderful suggestion when I stumbled onto their website this afternoon. Reading descriptions about how they literally built blanket forts in various rooms across the country in order to facilitate comfortable discussion, I was absolutely intrigued. Ravenous for more of this truly out-of-the-box approach, I dug a little deeper on their website and discovered this jewel of a bookHow to Make Money and Change the World

Not only was it one of the most helpful and innovative books I have read on the subject of finding a job in our generation – it was free! Beautifully designed and available online for download, and redistribution, I thought – well! that’s my Christmas shopping done for every friend I have who’s about to graduate from international development! (On a fair note, being a student, I otherwise probably was just going to wish them Merry Christmas on their facebook walls or twitter, so this is quite the improvement as far as free gifts go...)

Occupation: Change the World

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in working for positive change – either in international development, or other fields of social change.

– Sarah Topps





Plumpynut: More revolutionary than sliced bread

19 11 2009

Every year 10.6 Million kids die before their 5th birthday. Malnutrition accounts for about half of that number. Finally, we may have a solution which addresses both caloric and micronutrient deficient diets: Plumpy’nut.

The old adage about being able to live off of only beer and peanut butter is almost true in this case, although since we’re talking about kids – it’s peanut butter and powdered milk. The mix also includes powdered sugar and several vitamin supplements including zinc, Vitamin A and E, iron and protein. It can add an astounding 1kg (2.2 lbs) per week to a hungry child’s weight.

CBS News ran a special on it back in 2008 but unfortunately WordPress does not support their embedded video.

It’s been used successfully in Niger by Medecins Sans Frontiers and is now being recommended by UNICEF for use across Africa and the world.

Plumpy’nut does not need to be cooked, or refrigerated, or boiled, it does not need to be mixed with water (eliminating potential contamination as has happened with powdered milk formulas), it has no parts which could be a choking hazard, it comes pre-packaged in an ideal amount, it can be eaten directly out of the packaging; making it an ideal meal for undernourished children in the developing world who may not have access to electricity or safe drinking water.

The following YouTube clip is an excerpt piece by Anderson Cooper from the longer CBS video I’ve referenced above.

– Sarah Topps





A Road Map to World Harmony

4 08 2009

I always have trouble when people ask me to explain succintly what I am learning from my degree (International Development Studies) and why I am taking classes in so many different areas. Last year I had made a rough diagram which attempted to demonstrate how all the areas were interconnected – i.e. agriculture is affected by environment, women’s rights are affected by religion, modern-day governments are affected by political geography, which in turn is affected by history etc.

Areas of Study - Interconnections

LANG = language, EDUC = education, NUTR = Nutrition, RELG = Religion, AGRI = agriculture, GEOG = geography, ECON = economics/economy, ENVIR = environment

*since making this diagram, I have added a few more areas to my degree, and there are certainly more which could be connected, these are just my chosen areas of focus.

More recently, Toyota has released an interesting interactive website showing the same idea as shown above, but with suggestions on how we can improve on the problems which face the world, including energy, education, health and coexistence – just to mention a few.

I thought about trying to duplicate it on here somehow, but it’s probably best to just explore it yourself.

– Sarah Topps








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